Stung by public opposition to coal exports, Port Metro Vancouver officials are pledging more consultation and open houses next month over a contentious plan to build a new coal terminal at Fraser Surrey Docks.
But a decision could then be made swiftly, according to Duncan Wilson, the port’s vice-president of corporate social responsibility.
“If things go relatively well and we’re confident issues within our purview are adequately addressed, then I think we could probably see a decision before the end of June,” he said.
The two open houses on May 23 and 25 will respond to public concerns raised to date, present measures to address impacts and gather more feedback.
“There is a lot of coal that is already handled in this port and it’s handled in an environmentally sustainable way,” port planning director Jim Crandles said. “There is no doubt that you can do it.”
Councils in Vancouver and New Westminster have opposed the new coal terminal, while Delta, Surrey and White Rock councils have expressed concerns and sought more information.
Metro Vancouver directors have also registered concerns about air quality impacts.
Port staff are working to answer all the questions.
Wilson hopes proponent Fraser Surrey Docks will be able to show acceptable ways to address issues like coal dust escape, more trains, increased noise and diesel particulate.
Coal now moves mainly via the BNSF railway to Westshore Terminal at Deltaport.
Nearly 33 million tonnes of coal moved in the region last year, most of it B.C.-mined steelmaking coal, and the port’s coal-handling capacity is 51.5 million tonnes.
So Wilson said he was surprised Fraser Surrey Docks’ proposal for a terminal handling just four million tonnes – bringing one more coal train each day – got so much attention.
It’s become a huge cause for climate change activists, who say most fossil fuels must be kept in the ground to avoid runaway global warming.
But local concerns are the only possible grounds to reject such a project, Wilson said, not the carbon emissions that will result when the U.S.-mined thermal coal is burned in Asia.
“We cannot turn down a project on that basis,” he said. “The market decides what is going to be traded.”
Although the Fraser Surrey Docks terminal would be expandable to eight million tonnes, Wilson stressed that would require a separate application.
Critics assume it will be a mere formality.
Wilson rejects suggestions the port acts as a rubberstamp for its terminal partners, contending it is a fair and rigorous regulator running exemplary public consultations.
Opponents, however, see a biased agency overseeing an opaque process that they do not trust.
“Maybe they’ve never been challenged before and never had to justify what they do,” said anti-coal activist Kevin Washbrook.
He wants public hearings into the new coal terminal, with expert witnesses on health and climate change, not open houses that he said are designed to neutralize dissent.
“The only people in favour of this are the port authority, Fraser Surrey Docks and the coal industry,” Washbrook said.
The port is also in talks with the region’s health authorities, but port officials say that’s mainly around a longer-term approach to project reviews that could affect human health. Fraser and Vancouver Coastal medical health officers aren’t expected to give input on the merits of the Surrey coal terminal.
Billions of infrastructure dollars have been spent on projects like the Roberts Bank rail overpasses and South Fraser Perimeter Road to help speed cargo through the region.
Wilson said the hostility to the coal terminal expansions – one handling steel-making coal in North Vancouver is already approved – may signal awakening public unrest over port expansion in general.
“When you put a shovel in the ground that’s when you get most people’s attention,” Wilson said.
“There are inevitably going to be impacts on local communities as we expand terminals and expand trade. We’re doing our best to address those.”
Wilson said the port will reconsider its review process with an aim to improving public confidence.
The port faces other contentious proposals, including its Terminal 2 container expansion at Deltaport and a jet fuel pipeline from the Fraser River through Richmond to Vancouver airport.
Coal dust response plan not yet known
The port is awaiting BNSF railway’s plan for how it would handle coal bound for the Fraser Surrey Docks terminal.
Coal cars going through White Rock, South Surrey and Delta to Deltaport now move uncovered, with a topping agent applied to suppress dust.
It’s not yet clear whether a different system will be proposed for the additional coal trains.
Port officials say they don’t have direct jurisdiction over how rail companies move their product on rail lines.
Any specific regulation to address dust from coal trains would have to come from Transport Canada.
An industry group is supporting the proposed terminal.
The Coal Alliance stresses the coal mining industry’s contribution to B.C. – 26,000 jobs and $400 million in direct provincial government revenues.